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Debo Adegbile '91: Civil rights is about equality for all, not opportunity for a few

When the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a constitutional challenge to the core provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 two weeks ago, attorney Debo Adegbile '91 was at the center of the case.

Adegbile, director of litigation for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, defended the law before the court in a case that was one of the most closely watched of the year. The challenge was brought by a small Texas water district, Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One.

The court ultimately ruled on a narrow statutory issue, declining to address the constitutionality of the law. Thus, the decision allowed both sides to claim victory.

The justices hinted that if pushed, they might find the law unconstitutional - doesn't the election of Barack Obama prove that discrimination is a thing of the past? But Adegbile, who testified before Congress in support of the reauthorization of the Act in 2006 and described the persistence of voting discrimination in many parts of the country, has some words of caution.

"The Voting Rights Act … is about equality for all citizens, not about opportunity for a single citizen or even a very talented citizen to reach the highest office," he told interviewer Tavis Smiley on PBS a few days after the court handed down its decision.

"I think it would be a mistake to equate progress, which we acknowledge and embrace, with the idea that there are no more lingering problems."

Adegbile, in his eighth year with the LDF, said after the case that discrimination today is more sophisticated – but no less painful – than in 1965.

"I'm hopeful that there will be a time in the future when we won't need to have special protections for minority voters, but we haven't come to the point yet," he said.

Adegbile's earliest experience working in law was as an intern in New London's public defender office – a position he found through the College's Office of Volunteers for Community Service.

"I had a great experience at Conn," he said. "It opened a lot of doors, prepared me well for law school and gave me an opportunity to focus on public service."

View Adegbile's interview on PBS.

Read more about Adegbile in the next issue of Connecticut College Magazine.

-Rachel Harrington

July 20, 2009